Snowmass Balloon Festival highlights tight knit community
The Snowmass Balloon Festival will continue Friday night in Town Park with the “Night Glow” from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Another morning balloon acension and several family friendly activities will take place both Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. There will also be a target competition for pilots above the Snowmass Golf Course on Saturday morning.
It started with two fans, a giant basket, tons of cords and a bag.
Then, as the sun started to peak over the hillside Friday morning near Snowmass Town Park, six people pulled a long line of rainbow, parachute-like fabric out of the bag, attached it to the basket with the various cords, and turned on the fans.
Within minutes, a hot air balloon with a head that could theoretically hold 140,000 basketballs within it was inflated and ready to rise as part of the 44th annual Snowmass Balloon Festival.
The pilot, Kenny Bradley, climbed into the basket and blasted the balloon’s insides with bursts of flames while waiting for the thumbs up to take off.
“You know, most people I take up don’t end up coming down with me,” Bradley said with a glint in his eyes.
His crew chief, Jennifer Abrams, was more reassuring.
“He takes a lot of sky divers up with him,” Abrams said. “He has a ton of confidence and absolutely loves what he’s doing. … He also has a sense of humor, but try not to laugh because it just encourages him.”
Abrams, who lives in Frederick, has been working with Bradley for about a year-and-a-half as his crew chief, meaning she helps get his balloon off the ground, “chases” him until he lands, and then helps load his equipment back into his sticker-decorated trailer.
Bradley lives in Ault and works mainly as a machinist and welder but flies his balloons as much as possible, which Abrams said is just as much fun for her as it is for him.
“I just love the sport and love seeing new people come out and fly for the first time,” Abrams said.
As soon as Bradley received the go-ahead, Abrams and a few volunteers helped wiggle the basket off the ground so it levitated. Like a slow elevator ride but with much better views and a less predictable destination, the hot air balloon ascended above the entrance to Snowmass Village.
“Look at it, it’s beautiful!” Bradley said as the balloon reached heights that made the cars below look like bugs. “It’s so surreal.”
As Bradley manned the balloon, blasting flames and pulling the rope attached to a large vent at different intervals, he explained that hot air ballooning is much more scientific than most people would think.
Pilots have to have a good understanding of fluid dynamics, weather patterns and landscapes, Bradley said. While in flight he constantly looked for cues on the ground and from the balloons floating nearby to gauge how the wind was moving at different heights.
“We’re at the mercy of the wind and get to go where the wind takes us, making the best of the resources we have available,” Bradley said.
His balloon setup can hold 40 gallons of fuel, which typically lasts for two hours, hence why Bradley is nicknamed “Two-Hour Kenny.” He said he flies every minute he can.
On Sunday, Bradley will celebrate his sixth year as a pilot and conclude his fourth year flying in the Snowmass Balloon Festival. He’s put in about 260 hours flying, but said he still remembers the first time he rode in a hot air balloon: Dec. 19, 2009. It was 17 degrees in Greeley and Bradley was scared to death because he’s afraid of heights.
“I was terrified. … I had my arm wrapped around the upright (which connects the balloon to the basket) with my hand in my pocket,” Bradley said. “But I thought it was fascinating and started getting into it.”
Now nearly 10 years later, Bradley and the pilot who took him on his first balloon ride, Mark Purdy, both are flying at the Snowmass Balloon Festival, along with pilots who have sold Bradley balloons and the pilot he’s dating, Dawnna Telles.
“The camaraderie among the pilots and crews is great,” Bradley said. “We all look out for each other. It’s a tight-knit community.”
This family-like atmosphere was evident Friday morning, as pilots teased each other and helped each other take off and take down. There was even coffee cake Purdy made himself being passed around.
But Bradley isn’t satisfied with the hot air ballooning community yet. He wants to see it continue to grow, which is why he’s working on earning his commercial pilot’s license so he can take more people up and teach them how to fly themselves.
Bradley also plans to learn how to make his own balloons and baskets, so he can help make the sport more affordable for the younger generations who may be interested in giving hot air ballooning a try.
“I just want to share my love with the masses and bring more people in so the sport keeps growing instead of fading,” Bradley said.
This wasn’t my best work. I still stand by my original picks to win each of the snowboard contests at X Games Aspen 2023, but fate chose poorly. The main lesson? Don’t pick against Mark McMorris, Marcus Kleveland or Scotty James, unless you have a very good reason.